celibacy

Eve Fairbanks brings a sympathetic eye to aspiring nuns -- nuns! -- in HuffPost's Highline

Eve Fairbanks brings a sympathetic eye to aspiring nuns -- nuns! -- in HuffPost's Highline

For the second consecutive week, I am pleased to focus on an amazing work of religion coverage from an unexpected platform: “Why On Earth Are So Many Millennials Becoming Nuns?” by Eve Fairbanks, writing for the Huffington Post longform section, Highline.

Her essay begins (disclosure of my bias) exactly the way I would expect a HuffPost article to begin, when dealing with a subject linked to a traditional form of faith.

It’s all here — right down to the “scare” quotes in the predictable places. But the key word in that headline is “Millennial,” a generation wrestling with some interesting hopes, fears and anxieties. Let’s start here:

I went to a science magnet high school, graduating in 2001, but in my late 20s, I began to notice that some of my classmates were turning toward the Catholic faith. It surprised me: My high school was ostentatiously secular. We had a steel statue on the front lawn depicting the triumph of mathematical logic. Our senior class president wore a giant calculator costume to football games. When my government class held a mock debate over abortion, only two students out of 18 volunteered to argue the “pro-life” case. …

Catholicism seems especially out of step with contemporary American life. Protestantism easily accommodates rock bands and a personable, almost life coach-esque Jesus. But even liberal Catholic communities require submission to a gold-crowned pope who theologically can’t be wrong (in certain circumstances) and who is chosen by a hundred-odd men — only men — who undergo a ritual of eating the literal body of Christ embedded in a cracker. To say the sex scandals didn’t help is putting it mildly. A 2008 Pew Research Center study found that Catholicism lost more adherents in the late 20th century than any other religion in the U.S. About a third of Americans raised Catholic reported that they had left the church.

Still, there’s a certain allure to a high school with public art “depicting the triumph of mathematical logic.” The first photo featured wit this post, taken from Thomas Jefferson Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., offers one possibility.

Once Fairbanks moves past this scene-setting about how she came to write this essay, she interviews a few different young women — Tori, Rachael, Mackenzie — who are high-achieving idealists.

The key question: Is there more to life than what is offered by a consumerist American culture?

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Beyond Thorn Birds (again): Vatican confirms there are rules for priests with secret children

Beyond Thorn Birds (again): Vatican confirms there are rules for priests with secret children

Is it just me, or does anyone else suspect that this is a great time for journalists to ask Vatican officials hard questions about the sins of priests who want to have sex with females?

I am not joking about this, although I will confess that there is a rather cynical twist to my question.

Let me also stress that we are talking about serious stories, with victims who deserve attention and justice. We are also talking about stories that mesh with my conviction that secrecy is the key issue, the most powerful force in Rome’s scandals tied to sexual abuse by clergy (something I noted just yesterday).

Still, the timing is interesting — with Vatican officials doing everything they can to focus news coverage on the abuse of “children,” as opposed to male teens, and a few young adults, as opposed to — potentially — lots and lots of seminarians. I am talking about this week’s Vatican summit on sexual abuse.

So first we had a small wave of coverage of this totally valid story, as seen in this headline at The New York Times: “Sexual Abuse of Nuns: Longstanding Church Scandal Emerges From Shadows.”

Now there is this semi-Thorn Birds headline, also from the Gray Lady, the world’s most powerful newspaper: “Vatican’s Secret Rules for Catholic Priests Who Have Children.” Here’s the overture:

ROME — Vincent Doyle, a psychotherapist in Ireland, was 28 when he learned from his mother that the Roman Catholic priest he had always known as his godfather was in truth his biological father.

The discovery led him to create a global support group to help other children of priests, like him, suffering from the internalized shame that comes with being born from church scandal. When he pressed bishops to acknowledge these children, some church leaders told him that he was the product of the rarest of transgressions.

But one archbishop finally showed him what he was looking for: a document of Vatican guidelines for how to deal with priests who father children, proof that he was hardly alone.

“Oh my God. This is the answer,” Mr. Doyle recalled having said as he held the document. He asked if he could have a copy, but the archbishop said no — it was secret.

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Catholic beat memo: Don't ignore facts about church tradition when reporting on priest shortage

Catholic beat memo: Don't ignore facts about church tradition when reporting on priest shortage

When I worked as an editor, I always encouraged journalists covering a particular city, town or neighborhood to get a hold of church bulletins. Why? They are packed with information and, frequently, with hooks for local stories.

The weekly bulletin that awaits me every Sunday when I enter church is one of the ways my family and I connect with the parish. It’s the place where the pastor writes a short message, offers up a schedule of events and there may even be ads from local shops.

The bulletin that greeted me on the first Sunday of this month did not feature good news. Rather, it hit close to home with information about some of the many challenges the current Roman Catholic church faces.

The clergy abuse scandals stretching back to 2002 in the Boston diocese through the present in Texas has crippled the church’s moral credibility in the eyes of many Catholics and society as a whole. Add to that a shortage of vocations that has plagued the church for decades and you have a lethal combination. With such adversity, how can the church properly serve the lives of everyday people? 

My parish priests, writing in the Feb. 3 bulletin, revealed that Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio — head of the Brooklyn diocese (which covers two of New York City’s five boroughs) — informed them recently that a decision had been made to make my church a “one priest parish” later this year. It means fewer services on Sunday and more work for the sole priest now responsible for the people living in the surrounding zip codes. 

“However, it is a sign of the reality we face with the declining number of priests,” the letter said.

What is happening in my parish is an example of the struggles thousands of churches across the country now grapple with. The church sex-abuse scandal, coupled with dwindling vocations, have made priests a scarce commodity.

What’s the answer to this problem? The mainstream media’s response has been to try and get Pope Francis to talk about — and even endorse — the notion of married priests, with no regard for the Catholic church’s Roman rite traditions.

Nonetheless, when it comes to married priests, this pope has argued against lifting the celibacy requirement. One wouldn’t necessarily know that from the headlines of the past few weeks.

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Once again, Pope Francis fails to make headlines (with conservative words on sex)

Once again, Pope Francis fails to make headlines (with conservative words on sex)

As a rule, controversial statements by the Pope of Rome tend to make news.

As a rule, controversial statements by the current occupant of the throne of St. Peter make news.

Do I really need to note that, as a rule, controversial statements by Pope Francis about sexuality almost always inspire headlines in major news sources?

With that in mind, raise your cyber-hand (leave a comment even) if you have read the following information reported in a mainstream news source in the past few days — especially in elite media, either printed on dead-tree pulp or in any electronic form.

Meanwhile, the following is from the Catholic News Service, as printed in the conservative National Catholic Register:

“The issue of homosexuality is a very serious issue that must be adequately discerned from the beginning with the candidates, if that is the case. We have to be exacting. In our societies it even seems that homosexuality is fashionable and that mentality, in some way, also influences the life of the Church,” the Pope says in the book The Strength of a Vocation, set to be released Dec. 3 in 10 languages.

In an excerpt from the book, released Friday by Religión Digital, the Pope said he is concerned about the issue of evaluating and forming people with homosexual tendencies in the clergy and consecrated life.

“This is something I am concerned about, because perhaps at one time it did not receive much attention,” he said.

Francis said that with candidates for the priesthood or religious life “we have to take great care during formation in the human and affective maturity. We have to seriously discern, and listen to the voice of experience that the Church also has. When care is not taken in discerning all of this, problems increase. As I said before, it can happen that at the time perhaps they didn't exhibit [that tendency], but later on it comes out.”

“The issue of homosexuality is a very serious issue that must be adequately discerned from the beginning with the candidates, if that is the case,” the Pope reiterated.

Wait, there is more to this nuanced, but still newsworthy, statement.

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Does the celibacy rule underlie Catholic scandals? Here's an angle reporters could pursue

Does the celibacy rule underlie Catholic scandals? Here's an angle reporters could pursue

Beginning with the pioneering National Catholic Reporter survey by Jason Berry and colleagues 33 years ago on priests molesting under-aged boys and girls, and on through the current devastating crisis, there have been continual disputes over whether the celibacy tradition bears blame and eliminating it would help prevent scandals.

It’s common for media to state that the Catholic Church requires priests to be celibate, but as beat specialists know that’s not fully accurate.

A handful of already-married Protestant clergy converts are Catholic priests. Far more important, married priests are allowed in Catholicism’s Eastern Rite jurisdictions across Eastern Europe, the Mideast and Asia (whereas the West’s Latin Rite has made its celibacy tradition mandatory for all since 1123).

The Religion Guy chatted about this mess with a New Jersey university professor who’s an active Eastern (Ukrainian) Catholic. Neither of us could recall hearing of any molesting scandals with Eastern priests. No doubt there are some, and The Guy has doubtless missed a few references.

But that raises the following: Does the track record of the 11,000 parish priests (not counting those in celibate religious orders) serving 17.7 million Eastern Catholics indicate marriage acts as a preventative and that there’s a link between celibacy and the abuse scandals? Does the Vatican have numbers on molesting cases with married Catholic priests these 33 years compared with clergy bound by celibacy?

If nobody knows, are there plans to research this question? If not, why not?

Whatever the church might do, how about journalists?

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AP digs into 'gay priests' wars, starting with views of 'moderate' Father James Martin

AP digs into 'gay priests' wars, starting with views of 'moderate' Father James Martin

First things first: Let me point readers to a must-watch video feature that will be taking place in real time in an hour or so after this post.

At 2:45 p.m. Eastern Time, veteran Washington Post religion reporter will take part in a streaming video session focusing on the Pennsylvania grand jury report on Catholic Church sex abuse. Watch here: Watch here: https://www.twitch.tv/washingtonpost

Then, at 3:30 p.m. ET, Post editor Marty Baron will take part. The Post PR email said he will be talking about the "Boston Globe reporting and present day accountability in the Catholic Church." Baron was, of course, editor of the Globe during it's famous "Spotlight" project on clergy sexual abuse.

The Post media team said that video clips will be available -- hopefully on YouTube -- after the live stream.

Now, back to business. Needless to say, readers saw the Associated Press report that ran all over the place with headlines similar to this one, from Religion News Service: "Cardinal McCarrick scandal inflames debate over gay priests."

Yes, your GetReligionistas saw it, too. In fact, you would not believe the amount of email I am getting (lots of nasty "spiked" comments board stuff, as well) about how the mainstream editors and even GetReligion folks have downplayed the "gay priests are the problem" angle in this story.

It is certainly true that some elite newsrooms don't want to investigate the issue of sexually active gay priests -- period. However, as I stressed the other day, There are crucial voices on the Catholic left and right who agree that the "non-celibate gay priests" angle has to be seen in a larger, more complex context.

Please allow me to repeat my summary on that subject, included in a post the other day with this headline: "The must-cover 'Big Ideas' at heart of the complex Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis." I do this because I think that this is the clearest statement I have made, so far, on journalism about this hot-button topic:

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Pastor of America's largest parish retires, with lots of (solo) shots at Catholic conservatives

Pastor of America's largest parish retires, with lots of (solo) shots at Catholic conservatives

A long time ago -- the early 1980s -- I wrote a front-page feature for The Charlotte Observer about life in the tiny Catholic Diocese of Charlotte. The news hook was an interview with the first bishop of what was, at that time, America's smallest diocese.

Things have changed in the Queen City, when it comes to Catholic life. In fact, if you follow news about American Catholicism you know that one of the most important stories is the explosion of Catholic statistics in the Bible Belt, including the Deep South and the Southeast. The rising Catholic tide in the Southwest is, to a large degree, linked with issues of immigration. That's a factor in the South, but the growth is also linked to large numbers of converts and transplants from the North.

Just the other day, Crux ran little story -- "In the U.S. South, the Church is in ‘growth mode’ " -- focusing on a meeting of bishops from the South. It noted:

“We are all in a growth mode. That’s a good thing,” Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta told the Diocese of Charleston’s newspaper The Catholic Miscellany.
“We are spending part of our time here talking about the need to establish new parishes, expand pastoral outreach, and respond to growing numbers both from immigration and those moving here from other parts of the country,” the archbishop continued. “We all are sharing in this growth.”

So, the Observer recently had a perfect opportunity to dig into some of these complex and important subjects.

The hook for this long story was the retirement of Msgr. John McSweeney, the senior priest at St. Matthew Catholic Church -- America's largest Catholic parish. To add to the symbolism, the lede notes that this New Yorker was the first priest ordained in the Charlotte diocese.

This is where things get interesting. This long, long piece is based on an interview with the outspoken McSweeney and, well, that is that. The bottom line: He is highly critical of many things that would be affirmed by traditional or even middle-of-the-road Catholics in the Bible Belt. As the Observer puts it, he believes the Catholic Church often puts the "Book of Law before the Book of Love."

Who gets to respond to his views on a litany of hot-button topics?

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Lesbian bishop war: Yes, United Methodists are debating status of sexually active LGBT clergy

Lesbian bishop war: Yes, United Methodists are debating status of sexually active LGBT clergy

As your GetReligionistas have said many times, reporters do not have to agree with the doctrines and laws of groups that they cover. Journalists must, however, strive to be accurate when covering what religious people and groups believe.

Basic accuracy is a journalistic virtue, even when reporters are writing for advocacy publications that are not committed to balance, fairness and showing respect for believers on both sides of hot-button issues in public life.

So the other day I wrote about the major New York Times piece describing developments in United Methodist Church battles over LGBT rights -- specifically the election of an openly lesbian bishop who is married to her same-sex partner. The Rev. Karen Oliveto of San Francisco was elected in the church's tiny (2 percent of the global church) Western Jurisdictional Conference.

The Times piece did a good job of letting readers hear from leaders on both sides. However, the report also claimed that United Methodist law bans the ordination of all gays, when in reality it rejects the ordination of gays who, in word and deed, openly reject church teachings.

As I said in that post, this is a fine line, but a crucial one -- in doctrine. I requested a correction. United Methodists law forbids the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing” gays and lesbians as clergy. The assumption is that there are also some gays and lesbians who affirm, and follow, church teachings that sex outside of traditional Christian marriage is sin.

This brings me to a follow-up report by Religion News Service -- "United Methodist groups divided after election of first LGBT bishop" -- that demonstrates what some accurate language looks like in practice, when covering this story. It's actually pretty simple, as in:

On Friday (July 15), the Rev. Karen Oliveto, senior pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, was elected bishop by the Western Jurisdictional Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., and consecrated the following day.
The election comes despite the denomination’s ban on the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”

In other words, this policy bans the ordination -- as pastors and then, obviously, bishops -- of gays and lesbians who are sexually active in the context of same-sex relationships.

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'Twas their gift to be simple (and celibate), but now the Shakers are all but gone

'Twas their gift to be simple (and celibate), but now the Shakers are all but gone

If you have studied the history of religion in America -- part of my double-major as an undergraduate and then my master's degree work in church-state studies -- then you will have run into the fascinating movement called the Shakers. Trust me, there is more to these believers than their influence on the Arts and Crafts Movement and, well, L.L. Bean.

The Shakers are in the news right now for reasons that are easy to understand, but a bit harder to explain -- if you care about the details.

The best report I've seen on this topic so far (combining elements of several other news stories) ran last week in The Washington Post with this headline: "One of the Shakers’ last three members died Monday. The storied sect is verging on extinction." It's a solid report, but does contain a very interesting and important hole. Meanwhile, here's some key material at the top of the story:

Sister Frances Carr died at the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, Maine, “after a brief battle with cancer,” according to a statement on the community’s website. It continued, “The end came swiftly and with dignity surrounded by the community and her nieces.” Carr was 89.
Carr was a member of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance, a Christian group formed in 1747 in Manchester, England. They earned the name the Shakers when critics began calling them “Shaking Quakers” because of “their ecstatic and violent bodily agitation in worship.” ... The Shakers eventually abandoned this particular dancing-style worship, but the congregation adopted the term, according to the Associated Press.
The religious sect moved to the United States when Ann Lee, one of its leaders (known as Mother Ann) who was imprisoned in England for her views, fled to the New World with eight of her followers in 1774. Eventually, the group established its first American community in New Lebanon, N.Y. Slowly, it blossomed into 18 communities across the Eastern United States, including locations in Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Massachusetts.

The last remaining Shaker community is at Sabbathday Lake, with two members.

Now, if you know anything else about the Shakers -- other than about their music (think "Simple Gifts") and furniture -- then it is probably a rather logical reason for the movement's decline:

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